Is re-nationalising the railways all it's cracked up to be?


Re-nationalisation is a bung to middle-class commuters

Every year, like clockwork, the cost of travel by rail goes up. Every year, like clockwork, the news and internet is filled with outrage about the fact that the cost of travelling by rail has gone up. Every year, like clockwork, someone suggests we re-nationalise the railways.

For the first time in decades, Labour is in a position where they could form a government under a leader who is not ideologically opposed to re-nationalisation. As such, the furore over renationalisation has reached a level that’s not been seen for some time.

As sure as night follows day, the discussion on renationalisation leads to people saying how unworkable a policy it is. To be honest, I’m not overly fussed. I don’t think it’s a big deal either way. If you’re going to renationalise things I think you should start elsewhere (such as the  Water Supply), but the popularity of the policy means it makes political sense for Corbyn to make renationalisation of the railways a flagship policy, but as we’ve seen so often before, good politics does not always make good governance.

I’m not going to spend any time debating the pro’s and cons of re-nationalisation of the railways as a policy in itself, but I must admit to being disappointed by the Labour leader’s push on this issue.  Why? Because it’s the only real visible transport policy.

Why Transport Policy Matters.

Railways, Roads and Aeroplanes aren’t a sexy policy area. The Department for Transport isn’t seen as an important office of state. It should be. Along with education, transport infrastructure is one of the policy areas that can boost or setback economic growth in the long term. Failure to invest properly can lead to economic stagnation, which can cause a domino effect into other areas, including inequality, health & education. If you don’t take transport seriously, then you’re not taking the economy seriously.

Multiple governments of all stripes have failed to get to grips with developing an effective transport policy. You need to only look at the fact that Cross Rail 2 has been signed off whilst northern lines aren’t even electrified to see that there is a systematic imbalance of where investment is occurring, but studies have confirmed this as well. This imbalance of investment is one of the reasons I find the fact that renationalisation is the focus of Labour transport policy to be so disappointing.

Take a look at the headline figures that are being pushed by the BBC to demonstrate the impact of the increases. They’re all metropolitan or suburban areas connecting to cities. The individuals making these journeys are more likely to be professionals and on higher incomes.  Transport policy has for decades been focused on helping professionals commute to work. If we judge a policies effectiveness by how progressive it is & how re-distributive it is, then British transport policy has been a failure, and the reality is that re-nationalisation would do nothing to change that.

Why renationalisation isn’t enough

If Labour moves forward with making renationalising the railways a core policy then they will be spending money and political capital on a policy that primarily benefits the middle-class commuter belt around London. I’m sure that other transport investment would be put forward under a Labour Government, but the fact remains that the core offering on transport is not progressive, and there is a shocking lack of detail and overt discussion around other areas of transport policy.
The failure of the Labour leadership to make the discussion about how important transport infrastructure is as a whole means we’re missing an opportunity to shift the Overton window in this policy area and potentially bounce the Tories, in the short, medium and long-term into investment in this area. This has already happened in some policy area. The entire “Jeremy Corbyn is actually PM” Meme that hit Twitter after the election is based around the idea that Corbyn is setting the agenda, but in this area, he’s not setting it in a progressive way.

In order to decrease inequality and improve living standards across Britain, we need a transport policy that is focused on delivering growth across the nation. Currently, the focus on renationalisation benefits middle-class commuters at the expense of everybody else. That’s not progressive. It’s good populist politics, it may very well deliver a few seats in the South East and help Labour form a Government, but it isn’t progressive. I’m open to the policy as a form of triangulation and a way to get Labour into power, but can we be honest and admit that it’s a bung to middle-class commuters and an attempt to tap into left-wing nostalgia rather than a serious attempt to solve the problems facing Britain today?